From sheer indolence, and in an effort to save the remnants of my sanity from the Internet, I’ve begun reading Giacomo Casanova’s Memoirs, in the translation of MacHen. It can be had at the price of 99 cents as a Kindle book from Amazon, and in case you’re not aware of it, you can load down the software onto your computer or a smart phone free of charge.
The Memoirs are a lot of fun. If you find it hard to abide a companion, even a very agreeable one, on a long journey, I can say with certainty that these adventures are not for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the company of a great racconteur, then you will find in the Memoirs a great deal of good summer reading. Obviously, they are an account of a famous life, lived famously or infamously, depending on your point of view, but they are also a comedy of manners affording a beautiful view into 18th century Europe. If you’ve ever wished that you might conduct a Grand Tour in the style of that century, but have found yourself without the means, then you’ll discover your opportunity in this book.
Much of the fascination of the Memoirs arises, as it must, from the author’s particular historical situation. Born in 1725 in Venice, but to absentee parents who have made whatever they have of their fortunes in the acting profession, a very bad profession in the eyes of the decent people who patronized it, Casanova was uniquely situated to witness all manner of customs, costumes, and styles of men and women from all over Europe and the Near East. Although Venice had been obliged to give up many of her Mediterranean territories against Islamic expansionism from her heyday in the early Renaissance, she still possessed many, including Constantinople, Corfu, and ports in present-day Albania and Croatia. Her imperial power was in steep decline, but she was still the most cosmopolitan city-state in Europe, and probably the world.
Italy at the time presented still a notional country, united by a common tongue, but which persisted in a large number of different dialects. Politically, it was still a tessellation of city-states, all intriguing against and with one another. Just upriver from Venice, on the Po, were the Papal States, which had 125 years prior swallowed up my beloved Ferrara and turned it into a backwater, though bits of what had been their territories continued under the rule of those enlightened despots, the d’Este. The general intriguiness (to coin a term) of those political entities is mirrored in the text by the continual social intrigues of the participants, some of whom, as in any life, make cameo appearances only, and others of whom recur again and again to the narrative. As any good writer who takes in hand a story with many characters will do, Casanova, with his remarkable memory, knows when to remind one just where one has met these recurring characters in the course of his literary perambulations.
I know that one of my problems when reading Russian novels is that I encounter names that are hard for me to take in at a glance and convert into sounds, so that in the works, for instance, of Tolstoy, I will see the name Alexander Blahbattiblahbovich and then lose the thread when he reappears. Fortunately, Casanova takes care of his readers, though some of the names that have been translated into English from the manuscript have been rendered with initials and dashes, in order not to excite the animus of the familial posterity of some of the figured. Certainly, readers of the day who conned the gazettes would have been able to make good guesses at the possessors of those names and probably could have been counted on to know a thing or two about the families.
But Casanova himself is very democratic, delighting in the simple intelligence of the peasantry, while admiring the intellect of the educated, when reasonably deployed. It’s important to his narrative that he do so, because in his feigned or real honesty, including his assessments of his own follies and philauty, we see again and again the importance of suspending judgment. And the author is well aware that we give great license to those who amuse us. Part of the rhetorical gambit of a Jane Eyre is to assume a perfect modesty while stuffing plaudits of herself into the mouths of characters who come only slowly and with surprise to an understanding of her virtues. Comparatively speaking, though, Jane is a bigot. Casanova subscribes to universal ethical and religious principles himself, while at the same time living in self-conscious violation of them, and yet manages not to seem proud of that, though he fobs a great deal of bad conduct off on his particular stripe of human nature. He is interested and enchanted with the manners and morals of other people, and inclined to try to take them at their own value. In prior ages, this has been considered tolerance, a virtue that has been rewritten in contemporary Euro-American parlance into a very ugly cartoon of what once it was.
Religion is important to our hero, though, and he contemplates it often and with a winning directness, while remaining inclined towards a surprising degree of orthodoxy on matters concerning the Church. Among all the other things that the Memoir is, it can be understood as a very public general confession on the part of an old man who realizes that he is rapidly approaching death, and Casanova is entertaining us in prospect of our keeping him in our prayers, as a good Catholic would. There are many clerical scoundrels in his account, and just as many humble, intelligent and upright servants of the Church. At any rate, the reader can be sure by the way he recounts his own villainies that he is not one much to sit in judgment, except where his experience of a person gives him sufficient information so to do. A seasoned dissimulator and semi-professional con man, a trickster, and an author who often gives the lie to himself, he asks us nevertheless to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to be benefited in return by his amusements. He’s a sentimentalist at heart (and I mean that in the literary-technical sense of the word), though his jokes, practical and impractical, sometimes go too far and get him into scrapes. He is rewarded and indulged by virtue of his excellent fellowship throughout. At various times, he is a clerical novice, a military novice, a mendicant violinist. He is a gambler always, and takes fortune, foul or fair, with a pretty good grace. Usually. One thing he is not, though, is a sociopath, because he’s always well aware of what we are pleased to think of now as other persons’ “interiority,” and he pays his dainty respect to that throughout.
I’ve done only a preliminary search on this, so please enlighten me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me remarkable that nobody has set out to make a series of his Memoirs. Searching about the internet, I stumbled on a truly terrible bit from The Biography Channel. If you have the stomach, you can view it here. Within the first few minutes, the writers had claimed that Casanova never spoke until he was eight years old, a claim that has no warrant in his writing, and that he was permanently cured of nosebleeds by a witch to whom his grandmother (who raised him) took him at that age. Casanova says merely that he doesn’t recall anything clearly before that age, and he says particularly that his nosebleeds became less frequent and severe after his encounter with the sorceress. In fact, he mentions them at intervals throughout the Memoirs. I don’t think it is too much to ask that the Biography Channel’s writers read a little of the Memoirs themselves before committing a sensationalistic and stupid video, but perhaps it is.
A 112-minute movie on this material may have charms all its own, but it must also necessarily be an abomination with respect to the Memoirs.
Every so often I make a point of repairing some sad gap in my own literary acquaintance, and though I am yet 1/6 of the way through the Memoirs, I can say that if you are looking for some delightful companionship you could do a lot worse. MacHen’s translation is marred by some bad compositing in respect of words, orthography and punctuation, but nothing that detracts, and all of which, at least to this point, is easily overcome by an attentive reader, and a very great bargain it is at the price. No doubt Casanova would be astounded at the availability of his Memoirs, and by this means of availability in particular, since among his many great and wise parts, a sublime futurist is nowhere to be found. In his opinion, given towards the end of the 18th century, Venice would always have need of galley slaves.
Did I mention women? There are lots of them.